Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Castle of Seven Stories



           About a decade ago, I heard the following parable from a teacher of mine, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson, who quoted it from the holy Baal Shem Tov:

            There was once a King who decided to set a date when all the subjects of His kingdom can meet Him freely, without appointments. He sent heralds around the kingdom announcing the date. The populace was very excited. The people prepared for the day. As the day approach their lists of requests grew longer.

            Finally the long awaited day arrived. They donned their best clothing and before dawn eagerly surrounded the castle. The moment dawn broke, a herald blew a trumpet and the drawbridge started descending. Hearts pumped with excitement. The moment the bridge was down, the crowd poured in.

            The castle had seven floors. The King, wanting to honor his guests, had each floor set up with its own unique entertainment. The first floor was set up as a banquet hall. The King hired the finest chefs in the kingdom to create the most delicious mouth-watering delicacies.  Many of the people never even witnessed such culinary creations in their whole lives. Some were so entranced that they just kept eating without ever realizing that they were full.

            The second floor was set up as a tavern, featuring the finest wines the kingdom had to offer. Many of these wines were brought up from the royal wine cellars. Each wine came with a unique history about its vintage, its age and the barrels it fermented in.  Some of the wines were literally centuries old. If you were into wine this was your spot.   

            The third floor was set up as a concert hall, where the finest musicians of the kingdom gathered to entertain the guests. They spent months rehearsing together just for this momentous occassion. They played in a wide variety of musical styles. Never once that whole day was the same melody played in the exact same way. It was too intriguing to resist.

            The fourth floor was the royal library. Books, manuscripts and scrolls containing all the wisdoms available to the kingdom were set out for display. It was literally an intellectual’s paradise. There were many intellectuals who finally opened books the answered their deepest questions; questions that haunted them for years and years.

            The fifth floor was a royal art museum. All the finest royal artwork was tastefully set up for display. The people were finally able to gasp at real life portraits of the kingdom’s legendary heroes and historical figures. The history of the kingdom was all there in it’s art. Among the paintings were also landscapes of places whose features had changed centuries ago. Here they were remembered in their original state.  Also, there were special exhibits featuring contemporary paintings emphasizing their new styles of creative expression.

            The sixth floor was a display of the royal jewels. The spotlights were aimed just right to make each gem cheerfully gleam and glisten. There were the royal crowns: the coronation crowns, the ceremonial crowns, the crowns worn at balls, the crowns for visiting places of worship, crowns for receiving diplomats, etc.   And of course there was much personal jewelry as well, like royal wedding rings, bracelets, etc.

            On the seventh floor was the throne room. The King sat eagerly awaiting His guests. 

            Twelve hours from opening, when royal heralds made the rounds to all the floors announcing “the castle is closing”, the visitors were shocked. It felt like their day just began and they were being chased out too fast! Except for one person, nobody ever got to see the King. They were all so busy enjoying the royal entertainment that their sense of time had disappeared. 

            Who was this one person who got to see the King? He was an uncultured peasant who was so uncultured that none of the entertainment gripped him. He had no basis for appreciating what he was being exposed to and what the crowd was raving about. When he tasted the food it tasted weird, he was actually happy that his wife packed lunch. He tried out a few wines, each one more or less tasted like the next. He found the fine unique process of creating each wine seemed to him like an impractical waste for something that will end up tasting the same anyway.  He was too tone deaf to appreciate the music. He could not read the books. The art gallery was a pretty view; but to him, it looked to him much like the rest of the artfully decorated castle. In his mind, it blurred with the portraits and other art work throughout the castle. The royal jewels were somebody else’s valuables, not his. So before he knew it he climbed up enough steps and stood right in front of the King. 

            He told the King that he needed a new cow, a new roof, better quality feed for his animals. He also needed the landlord to reduce the rent. He asked for everything that his peasant sensitivities were able to fathom and imagine. The King approved and the peasant left happy.


            The parable describes why a human being on earth can have a special relationship with the Creator that cannot be enjoyed by the inhabitants of the celestial realms.  

            The King in the parable is the Creator. The various floors of the castle are the levels of paradise. All the entertainment on each of these floors represents the Divine pleasures offered in each heavenly realm.  

Even though the pleasures are very spiritual, they're all “about the King”. They're not the King Himself. Paradoxically, only a being too unrefined to appreciate the spiritual music of paradise and be distracted by its allure has the privilege to meet with the King Himself. This “being” is an earthbound human who lives like a "peasant” by inhabiting a realm deprived of spiritual delights. Now you know why we are the lucky ones. 


Writing a Book


There was once a man who every so often showed up at a particular synagogue and made some nice acquaintances among the general membership. Though this was not his "regular synagogue", there were occasions when he was visiting the area and found it was convenient to attend.

On one of these visits, a member asked him, "What are you keeping busy with?"

"Oh, I'm writing a book" he causally responded.

On his next visit, several months later, he bumped into the same person and was asked "How's your book coming along?"

"Oh, just fine", he smiled.

Over the course of a year, he made several more visits.  With each visit a larger group grew around him, curiously inquiring about the development of his book. He deflected their inquiries with vague assurances that everything was developing as planned.

About a year and a half passed.  One morning, he found himself praying in the same synagogue again. After the prayers concluded, a by now impatient group gathered around him pleading "So, can we see your book already?"

To which the "author" pointed his finger heavenward and quoted from the Talmud, "All of our deeds are written in a book!"


(1) Your actions are in the midst of writing a more powerful story than your pen. Are you proud of how your story is turning out?

(2) People tend to be somehow more full of life in their "artistic moments" than in their daily "hum drum" activities. Their lives are sometimes sharply divided between creativity and responsibility. What this story is teaching is that every moment is ultimately an "artistic moment". One is not just writing a book when s/he's sitting in front of a word processor. One is writing a book with every moment of life. So fill every moment with life and celebration!


How We Spend ...

Here's a story I told my two youngest children yesterday ...

There was once a king who gave a trusted friend $1,000 to travel to a nearby city and buy him a fine pipe with a large pouch of quality tobacco.  The friend arrived in the city and was tempted by the lure of an exotic restaurant. He reasoned, "It only cost $50 for a fine meal. I'll still have $950 left, enough for that wonderful pipe and tobacco. The king's request will still be fulfilled."

After the restaurant, he passed a clothing store. He saw a "perfect suit" advertised on sale for only $150. He mused, "By the time I buy this suit, I'll still have $800. With a bit of care and bargaining, I should still be able to buy the exactly the same pipe and tobacco the king originally requested."

The suit was bought. Right next store was a shoe store, for mere $100 he could have splendid pair of shoes, a glossy shining match to his new suit - perfectly suited ! "Ah", He thought, "I'll just have to put some of the king's order on credit. It would be a shame to pass up this pair of shoes."

Before long one purchase led to another until the whole $1,000 was spent. Now he was ashamed to return to the palace. He looked around for work to earn back the money. As a pampered favorite in the palace, he did not have many skills useful in an urban setting. Finding work was difficult. He had to accept low paying positions at the bottom of the societal ladder.

Meanwhile the king was frantic. "Where is my friend?" He wondered both to himself and aloud. Finally, he sent guards to fetch him. It was not long before the guards found him and brought him back to the palace - red faced with embarrassment for having spent the king's money and proven to be untrustworthy. Of course the king forgave his friend, but, the embarrassment painfully still lingered on for quite while. It took a long time for the relationship to regain its original feelings of intimacy.

Lesson: The King of the universe gives us many gifts and talents. These gift and talents take many forms: time, health, sensitivities, family, friends, intelligence, education, abilities, money, property, etc. This is the $1,000 the King gives us. He asks us to visit the earth plane and bring Him back something. Surprisingly, what He's asking for is not so much what He wants, but really what we want; namely, a chance to express the yearning of souls to give. The soul wants to give kindness. Paradise has everything. In heaven, there is no need for souls to give. So as the Loving Parent the Creator is, He sends the soul to place offering plenty of opportunity to give - this world. Here, there's enough darkness for the soul to brighten up. 

In giving the soul this opportunity, the King outfits the soul with a wide variety of resources. It's both the Creator's hope and the souls hope that the resources will be used to their fullest on the opportunities the soul craves. However, what happens when the body's desire to selfishly receive gets in the way and the person is swayed to indulge? This is like misspending the King's money. This is betraying both the Creator and oneself. Ultimately, the deepest inner satisfaction is attained when the soul brings into fruition his/her dream, which is to manifest his/her inner vision of kindness into the world.

Thwack !

It’s a Jewish spiritual teaching that all events in our lives are caused by the Creator. He alone decides and understands what’s best for our soul’s journey. Often people think that their fates are in the hands of parents, teachers, siblings, spouses, genetics, financial markets, health specialists, governments, etc. The list of these kinds of attributed causes can be exhaustive. Truthfully, there is only one cause behind every event, the Creator. All the other causes that people often attribute to the events in their lives are really just tools used by the Creator to reshape human destiny. He has many tools in his vast toolbox.

However, people often confuse the Creator with His tools. This reminds me of a story that happened to me in the early 1990’s. At the time I was living in South Florida and enjoyed exploring the local Native American culture.

It was a bright and sunny Florida mid-winter season, the kind that beckons people from colder climates to drop by and warm their bones. A friend of mine visited me from New York. Wanting to showcase for him the lovely unique natural beauty of South Florida, I took him along on several different outings over the course of a few days. One of these outings was to the Seminole reservation in Hollywood, Florida.

We arrived at the Seminole reservation on time for an alligator wrestling show. The show was held in a large enclosed area. An assortment of alligators and crocodiles were sunning themselves behind a fence.

Out came the wrestler. He began the show by comparing and contrasting the nature of the alligators to crocodiles. He explained that the American alligator has a relatively docile nature in contrast to the aggressive Nile crocodile. He then picked up a long pole and lifted it high in the air. It whistled as it came down and struck an American alligator on his leathery muscular back with a loud "thwack". The alligator barely moved. His repose continued undisturbed, as he lounged in the sun.

Next, the wrestler again lifted his long pole high in the air. This time the pole "thwacked" the back of a Nile crocodile. The crocodile hissed and growled at the pole. His snout reared with anger. His jaws opened wide revealing deadly teeth. Aggressively, he kept snapping at the pole, again and again and again and …. 

Having just passed Passover, this story possibly sheds light on the second plague that the Creator had sent the Ancient Egyptians just before the Exodus. The popular, and certainly the main, tradition is that the Hebrew word for the second plague tzeh-far-de’ah means “frogs”. However, there is a minor tradition that the word tzeh-far-de’ah means “Nile crocodiles”. Indeed a famous renaissance traveler to Egypt, Rabbi Obadiah of Bartenura, reported in his travel diary that he saw the Biblical tzeh-far-de’ah and then proceeded to describe Nile crocodiles.

If this plague was indeed a communal infestation of Nile crocodiles then it’s easy to see how this plague fit the Ancient Egyptian psyche; a psyche that just grabs at the nearest tangible cause of joy or suffering without seeking a more underlying cause.

The Ancient Egyptian worshipped a system of cosmic forces. They perceived these force as so spiritual that they mistakenly thought that they reached the upper end point of reality. In their imaginations there could be nothing beyond. What they missed was that the Creator is beyond their whole cosmic pantheon of forces. These spiritual forces are merely the Creator’s tools. As mere tools, they are not really responsible for the pattern and flow of human life. It’s best to appeal to the One who wields the tools – the Creator. 

Watching this scene I mused to myself, “He thinks the pole is attacking him and so he’s battling the pole. He absolutely has no clue who’s wielding that pole; who is his real attacker. He just grabs at the nearest tangible symbol of his suffering and deals with it reactively. Isn’t this so similar to what happens with humans? Humans think that their suffering or pleasures come from immediately tangible sources, not realizing that these sources are mere tools being wielded by the Creator and it’s best to appeal to the real Source.”

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Purim Miracle

I have an interesting personal story to share:
As with many words in Hebrew there is not an exact translation for the word "emuna" in English. However, the Hebrew word "emuna" (pronounced eh-mu-nah) roughly translates into English as "faith". Probably, the main reason why "faith" is only an approximate translation is because "emuna" connotes a knowing that is beyond intellect, but emerges from being deeply in contact with one's own soul. This inner soul contact can also act as an inner fountain flowing creative ideas.

By contrast, the English word faith can mean ideas which are superimposed on a person by an outside source.

I owned a very well written book called, "The Garden of Emuna" by Rabbi Shalom Arush. When it was gifted to me a few years back, I was busy working on other areas of my spiritual growth. However, I loved the idea of owning this very special book and set it aside for future reading.

A couple of months ago, my beloved Aunt had recently become an owner of a copy of this book. She shared with me her joys over what she read in sweetly glowing terms.

Feeling inspired to at least locate my own copy, I examined all likely "book spots" around my house. However, it seemed like it must have been misplaced. I prayed as I looked, but, the book hadn't turned up. So I simply let go.

I was scheduled this Purim night (Saturday night, February 27, 2010) to lodge at my brother's house in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York for a holiday visit. The snow in Brooklyn was unseasonably high and with so much of the curb side snowed over, finding parking was not expected to be easy. Despite my concerns, to my own surprise, a perfect parking spot emerged into view located conveniently around the corner from my brother's house.

I pointed it out to my family, but, because of the late hour it seemed only appropriate to provide my family with door to door service. So I passed up the spot. After my family was comfortably settled in, I resumed my search for parking. Turning the corner revealed that the parking spot was still waiting for me.

After pulling in, I got out of the car and laying on the snow in the nearby gutter was a copy of "The Garden of Emuna" in perfect condition. My heart danced as I lovingly picked it up and wiped off some surface moisture on the cover with my gloves and coat.

Then I searched to see whether anyone left his or her name in the book. Finding no identifying mark, it was seemed to me that the Creator had probably intended the book for me. Perhaps, I was being given a Purim gift, in the form of a message and a tool, to begin a new phase of further growth in the area of "emuna".

For those who are interested in learning more about the book, "The Garden of Emuna", you can click on the following link: